Uncertain times like these prompt many of us to seek familiar voices we’ve trusted in the past to help us make sense of an upside-down world. For Gen X-ers, such voices may belong to a list of singer-songwriters who offered melodic alternatives to grunge bands that dominated rock in the 1990s — a list that could well include Freedy Johnston, who enjoyed a moment during that now fashionably retro decade. Johnston headlines a Wild Honey benefit for the Autism Think Tank Sunday afternoon in Eagle Rock; cult favorites Jimmer Podrasky and Syd Straw will open with an acoustic set..
With his streetwise characters and snappy hooks, Johnston garnered best-of-year raves for early albums like 1992’s “Can You Fly” and 1994’s “This Perfect World” (which produced the single “Bad Reputation”), and subsequent albums throughout the ’90s were greeted favorably as he further synthesized Elvis Costello and REM influences with his own sensibilities. By the early 2000s, he was back on independent labels, scoring the occasional film, jamming with fellow troubadours, and playing with pickup bands on the road. His most recent album is 2015’s crowdfunded, gratifyingly unsentimental “Neon Repairman.” In June he recorded six tracks with ace guitarist John Jorgenson and his “Can You Fly” rhythm section, drummer Brian Doherty and Joe Jackson bassist Graham Maby, but Johnston doesn’t plan to release an album.
“I don’t really feel like I understand what an album is right now,” he says, poking fun at his lack of social media savvy while navigating mountain roads through Nevada. “So we’re gonna do singles, and that’s great. It’s gonna be good to have new music out.”
For Johnston, who says his brain reflexively clings to the old-school idea of recordings you can hold, switching from hawking physical albums to selling digital singles online is just one aspect of the ever-changing business paradigm to which he and his peers are continually adapting. How to adopt digital marketing tools without sacrificing the fruits of labor for free is a conundrum bedeviling independent entrepreneurs of myriad kinds. That includes Podrasky, who first made a splash fronting the Rave-Ups in the late ’80s, and Straw, who started out singing backup for Pat Benatar before earning kudos with the Golden Palominos and then for her solo work in the ’90s.
Since parting with their major labels, Johnston, Podrasky and Straw have all continued to make music independently, albeit less frequently. It’s a struggle, and the business side demands nearly as much creativity as the music. Podrasky and Straw’s rootsy duets EP, “Shoulder to Cry On,” released this summer with mostly word-of-mouth promotion, has the relaxed living room vibe of friends sharing life stories. There’s comfort to be mined from the lines and chiming chords of songs like “So Long Blue” (written by Podrasky and guitarist Brian Whelan), if they can be heard.
“The industry has changed a lot, a few times, but making music has changed zero,” Johnston observes. “Even the actual performing of it. That’s completely the same as 1972 and there’s no difference whatsoever as far as the way I write songs or record them — even the same gear! That part of it is really much more resistant to change than I thought. Twenty years ago, when I first had a record deal, friends who were younger than me were like, ‘Ah, you and this guitar music, this stuff’s gonna be gone soon.’ Like, OK, great. Is it any different now than it was then? I don’t think so.”
At the end of the day, he says, “all musicians are in the same tribe,” scrambling for a toehold on a continually shifting landcape and trying to create something that hasn’t been heard before. A spirited discussion ensues about how artists channel influences. (“You’ve just gotta bring your own weirdness to it and not be too slavish.”) That his own smart, hooky songcraft has influenced younger artists makes Johnston vaguely uncomfortable, though he understands it’s part of pop’s generational life cycle.
“The fact that I influenced somebody still scares the shit out of me,” he admits. “It’s like, ‘Wow, you actually listen to my songs?’ But it’s been a long time I’ve been doing it, so I realize that people have been influenced by me. And here I am driving down the road doing gigs. That’s the highest honor, you know?”
These days Johnston tours with his dog Sparky riding shotgun. At Sunday’s show, he’ll be backed by drummer Dave Raven and Smithereens bassist Severo Jornacion. (It sold out at press time, but there’s a waiting list for tickets.)
“I’m pretty happy,” he says. “Life is always hard for everyone, frankly, but my dog is alive and I’m getting down the road, it’s fine. I’m just gonna keep working on songs.”
Freedy Johnston headlines, Jimmer & Syd open at Wild Honey Backyard Amphitheatre, 1167 Kipling Ave., Eagle Rock 1:30-4:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18; $20/ $40. To be added to the waiting list for tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Freedyjohnston.com, jimmermusic.com, freedyjimmer.brownpapertickets.com